Why wind and solar are key solutions to combat climate change

The cheapest, fastest and most scalable interventions for the climate crisis this decade.

Chelsea Bruce-Lockhart

Data visualisation lead

Claire Kaelin

Digital Communications Assistant

Richard Black

Head of Policy and Strategy

Ember

9 February 2024 | 3 min read

Clean electricity will not only displace CO2 emissions from the power sector: it will also help reduce emissions from other sectors. The increasing adoption of electric vehicles for transport, heat pumps for heating and electrical processes in industry is reducing the direct use of gas and oil, but increasing demand for electricity. Accelerating the deployment of clean power is the obvious way to meet this additional demand without resorting to additional coal and gas generation. 

While there are many solutions available for reducing power sector emissions while scaling up the electricity supply, two proven technologies stand out as clear winners for slashing emissions by the volume required this decade – wind and solar power. Wind and solar are the cheapest, the quickest to deploy and among the cleanest, least carbon-intensive power sources.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that, globally, wind and solar alone can deliver more than a third of the emissions reductions needed for a 1.5 degree pathway across all sectors by 2030.

Wind and solar are the cheapest solutions

Solar and wind power costs have been declining rapidly. During the decade to 2020, the cost of wind and solar power fell by 55% and 85%, respectively. The cost of batteries, increasingly used to store renewable electricity, also fell by 85% over the same time period. 

Overall, wind and solar costs have continued to fall since 2020 despite supply chain issues relating to the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which produced a short-term uptick in wind power costs in some regions. Analysts foresee continuing cost reductions for both wind and solar in the coming years. 

When considered over an asset’s lifetime, the cost of producing a unit of electricity from onshore wind and solar PV, is now generally well below that of gas and coal in many countries.  According to data from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), 85% of global utility-scale wind and solar capacity was added at a cheaper cost than fossil-powered alternatives in 2022. In some cases it is even cheaper to build and run new wind or solar farms than to continue running existing fossil fuel plants.

In fact, renewable energy, globally, saved consumers $521bn in 2022 through reduced demand for fossil fuels in the power sector, according to IRENA analysis. This is more than 0.5% of global GDP. Ember analysis also found that more ambitious clean power pathways in Europe would reduce overall energy system costs compared to current plans that prolong reliance on fossil fuels. Globally, the quicker the transition, the greater the savings.

Wind and solar are quick to deploy

The amount of wind and solar capacity added every year is far outpacing growth in both fossil fuel capacity and alternative clean technologies. Solar’s capacity growth in particular has regularly exceeded forecasts.

Wind and solar farms can be assembled in a matter of months – rooftop solar in a matter of days. Meanwhile, other clean technologies such as nuclear power plants and large hydro dams can take multiple years to build, a major reason why  wind and solar will be crucial in providing the majority of new clean generation this decade – as much as 89%, according to International Energy Agency (IEA) Net Zero pathways.

Furthermore, wind and solar are not dependent on geographical factors like other clean technologies such as hydro and geothermal power. They can be built anywhere, and tend to face few restrictions due to security or public safety concerns

Wind turbines, solar panels and related components are also being produced at increasing scale. Surging solar manufacturing capacity is expected to reach nearly 1,000 gigawatts annually in 2024 – double what was produced in 2022. 

Wind and solar are among the cleanest power sources

Once installed, virtually no greenhouse gases are emitted as a result of wind and solar power generation, and they pay off the energy related to their manufacturing and construction within a matter of months. Their existence prevents the continuous burning of fossil fuels for decades. 

Over the course of a typical 3 megawatt wind turbine’s 25 year lifespan, 154,484 tonnes of coal would need to be burned to produce the equivalent amount of power. This would emit around 400,000 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere – roughly the same as driving an average petrol car around the equator 50,000 times.

Global power sector emissions would have been 20% higher in 2022 if all the electricity from wind and solar had instead come from fossil generation.

Beyond this decade

Building a global net zero power sector by 2045 – compatible with the goal of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees – will, as modelled by the IEA, require the expansion of many types of clean power. But the necessary near-term solutions for cutting power sector emissions already exist. 

It is possible that technologies currently in development could change the landscape of what’s most efficient for scaling up clean power beyond 2030. But with the speed of transition required, wind and solar are crucial for keeping the world on track for 1.5C this decade.

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